February is usually the time of year in Singapore where the sights, sounds and smells of Lunar New Year festivities are in the air. Chinese New Year ditties will be playing in shopping centres across the island, and pasar malams (Singapore’s pop-up markets) spring up in the heartlands hawking all kinds of delicious CNY produce and shiny, red decorations for you to festoon your homes with.
For a couple of days a year, the bustling country comes as close to a standstill as it probably ever will to celebrate the event. That’s because Singaporeans of Chinese descent make up over 75 per cent of the population; the preparation and revelry begin the weeks and days prior.
If you are new to these shores and are wondering what fun stuff people get up to during this holiday season, here are five interesting things that Singaporeans do during the Lunar New Year.
Lo hei, otherwise known as Yusheng, may be translated to mean a prosperity toss. It consists of a salad of shredded vegetables, strips of crispy fried dough, pomelo, raw fish (often salmon) and more; the dressing for it is sweet and tart.
It is a delicious concoction to be had, but the reason Singaporeans consume this dish is that it represents vitality, prosperity and abundance. Each item in the dish has a meaning attached and every time an ingredient is poured onto the salad, a Chinese idiom or phrase is said aloud. For instance, the deep fried dough represents golden pillows and as they are strewn over the salad, a phrase is recited that loosely translates to “your floor will be covered in gold”.
When all the ingredients have been added, everyone at the table would gather their chopsticks and start tossing the salad in unison. The higher you toss it, the better!
While there have been variations of yusheng in the past, the qicai yusheng (“seven-coloured prosperity salad”) is the one that is popularly served in local restaurants today; it is understood to have been created by Singaporean chefs in the 1960s.
If you are new to Singapore and have been invited to a friend’s home for the new year, this is a custom you will want to know beforehand. (You’re welcome.)
Lunar New Year is like Christmas all over again for the little ones! It is customary for married folk to give red packets (or hong bao) containing cash to their parents, children and single adults.
The significance of the red packet isn’t in the amount of money it contains but lies in the envelope itself. For the Chinese, red symbolises vigour, good luck and prosperity. By giving someone a hong bao, you are bestowing upon them good luck and good fortune. It is also common to give a pair of mandarin oranges along with a red packet as these juicy citrus fruits further signify good luck.
Why a pair, though? Because traditionally, the Chinese believe that good things come in pairs. It is also the reason why hong baos usually contain even numbers. $8 is always a safe amount to put in a red packet because it means prosperity to the Cantonese. But never, ever put $4, as the number is a homonym for death. (Interesting fact: even numbers are not a thing for the Teochews, who would be perfectly happy to find a $5 note in their red packet.)
You may also see extra long lines at the bank during this festive period. That’s because the bank gives out new and crisp notes during this period, which are traditionally preferred in hong baos as they represent new beginnings.
“Wushi” or Lion Dance is meant to bring—you guessed it!—good fortune and good luck while also driving away evil spirits. It is traditionally performed during the Lunar New Year but is also a familiar sight during other cultural festivals and important events such as at the opening of a new business or at weddings.
It is not to be mistaken with the dragon dance, which is a much longer animal and is held up by poles that are controlled by several people beneath. The lion dance consists of a pair of dancers and its strong and graceful movements are based in Chinese martial arts. It is often accompanied musically by flutes and drums and is a beautiful sight to behold.
This one is rather self-explanatory. Reunion dinner is when families make a point to gather for a meal together on the eve of the Lunar New Year. Traditionally, the meal would include a variety of dishes that are prepared specifically for the occasion. As you may have already noticed, symbolism is huge in Chinese culture, and much like the yusheng, each dish usually comes with a meaning. For example, a whole steamed fish is a common dish served at reunion dinner to signify abundance.
These days, however, the steamboat or hot pot has also become a popular reunion dinner staple; an abundance of food that is cooked and enjoyed in a communal fashion adds to the theme of a reunion. After a sumptuous dinner, it is the tradition for the children to stay up to ring in the new year. Called “Shou Sui”, it is believed that kids who stay up are “guarding the age” and ensuring longevity for their parents.
One of the classic plants you’ll find in homes, Chinese restaurants and shopping centres during this time of year is the pussy willow. Also known as the catkins, the lovely plant consists of furry white buds and reminds us of the arrival of spring, while also symbolising renewal and regrowth.
To keep it in the best shape, water it twice a week and keep it in a shaded area. It is not too fond of Singapore’s warm climate!